This show was triggered by a question asked on a recent webinar that I gave when a member of the audience, Glenn, asked “Are there any podcasts or resources that focus specifically on rounding out the application – recommendations, extra-curriculars, etc.”
There aren’t. I decided to create one, and this is it. We’re going to discuss different elements, why they are important in graduate admissions, and what you can do to make sure you provide admissions committees with what they want.
A school’s class profile gives a good idea of averages and what schools would like to see. If your grades are above the average, great! If they are below the average, you will need to work harder to gain admission.
Grades are important because past performance predicts future performance. This is a fundamental premise of admissions. Schools want to know you have the ability and self-discipline to excel in a demanding academic environment. If you want to go to a top program with great grades and you excelled in a tough program in the past, you are providing evidence that you can thrive in a new environment. If your grades don’t provide that confidence, you need to provide context as to why your grades don’t reflect your ability, or you need to take classes now, get strong grades now, and show that you now have the discipline and raw intelligence to perform. I go into much more detail in Podcast 137, 5 A’s for Your Low GPA.
Test Scores [4:02]
Test scores provide a common standard – everyone takes the same test – whereas individual schools’ grading standards can vary enormously. While test scores don’t show the ability to apply oneself in a demanding academic environment, they do measure raw aptitude and are highly predictive of success in specific graduate programs. In addition, test scores have some secondary purposes. When published, they impress alumni, applicants, and recruiters — and US News. Because of these non-official purposes, they can tend to take on outsize importance.
The primary purpose of the essays is threefold, and you can think of it in terms of the acronym PAD:
P: Provide a window into the real you. They want to meet you, see that you would fit in, that there isn’t a jerk factor, and that you share their values and mission.
A: Add value to the other elements of the application. Your grades, resume, test scores, recommendations, etc., are all parts of the puzzle that portray an image of you. The job of the personal statement is to show you as a human being. You don’t want to duplicate what you do in other parts of the application. And if possible you want to steer clear of technical examples. Rather for most graduate degrees, but not all, focus more on motivation, interpersonal or leadership examples, and the impact you intend to have once you earn your degree.
D: Demonstrate your communications ability. Schools, especially business schools, are more and more are asking for videos – I think this will become increasingly common. For most programs, though, writing is the only way to gauge how well you communicate until they invite you for an interview.
Your writing needs to be clear, well written, correct, and not full of sloppy or silly errors, because otherwise they will believe you will be muddled, unclear, and sloppy.
The essays also allow you to show fit with the school. Programs have different flavors, and while programs offering the same degree are similar on some level, there are going to be nuances, strengths, and weaknesses, and the essays are a great place for you to show fit with the school’s strengths and culture.
The resume provides a summary of your career to date and a snapshot of your career progression, which is critical for MBAs or any post-experience program.
Medical schools will want to see if you took a gap year(s), and what you did during that time. Research is nice to have for med school but not required unless you are applying to a research-oriented program or want an MD/PhD. Clinical exposure is a must. Teamwork is important.
If you are a non-traditional applicant perhaps coming from another career, you will want to highlight aspects of your career that are particularly relevant for medicine. For example, if you are a computer developer, you presumably have learned how to think very logically while troubleshooting and diagnosing computer problems. You can use those skills and transfer them to medicine. If you are a teacher you can explain complex concepts to students, and you can transfer that skill to explaining complex concepts to patients. Essays and written portions of the application or interviews are great places to make the connection between what you’ve done in the past and what you want to do in the future if it’s not obvious.
For academic research programs, research is mandatory, as it’s part of the job.
In any field, schools want to see you have a realistic expectation of what the work in the program and beyond the program involves. This expectation is a good thing – it’s a safety mechanism to protect you from spending tens of thousands of dollars and years of your life on a mistake.
The basic idea is that your resume and past experience should show affinity for your chosen career and field of study, and the admissions committee should be able to look at what you have done in the past, combine it with the education they are going to provide you and see how the combination will help you achieve your goals.
Letters of Recommendation [12:56]
Almost all programs require them, some two, some one, some three or more. Letters of recommendation are important because the school you are applying to gets a third party opinion on your candidacy. This third party perspective is what they are looking for. It can be problematic if a recommender says they are swamped and want you to write the letter, because it means the school isn’t getting a truly valid letter of recommendation. Sometimes admissions committee readers can tell if a letter has been written by the applicant because of the writing style. And they know they are not getting that new perspective.
To prevent this from happening to you, I suggest that 6-8 weeks before you want the letter written you present your recommender with a 1-2 page summary of things you have done that they should be aware of and the characteristics/values of the particular program you are applying to.
Community service AKA extra-curriculars [15:06]
Community service and extra-curricular activities can show a lot of different qualities. For medicine, it shows a commitment to service, which is something med schools really value since the essence of medicine is service. For business, leadership opportunities may not exist early in one’s professional career, so a volunteer role may provide that. For all areas, it can show an affinity with the field you’re entering. For example, if you’ve worked at a legal clinic and are applying to law school, it’s great experience. If you are applying for a Master of Accounting and have worked in tax prep, you know what you’re getting into.
Community service also reveals a multi-dimensionality that enriches the educational environment and complements expertise in your area of study. For example, if you are applying to med school and volunteered at a soup kitchen, as a doctor you will most likely again work with underserved populations, so that experience will help you know what you’re getting into. For business, extra-curriculars demonstrate a commitment to community, and that you’re not just buried in investment banking or in a management consulting firms working with elites. You care about society and outreach to society. Your experience will enrich the classroom environment, whatever degree you are going after.
If you don’t have any community service experience, start as soon as possible. Even a few months of community service is better than none, and you never know, you might have to reapply and then the time becomes 1-2 years, so the experience is richer and the commitment stronger.
Addenda/Optional Essays [18:54]
These are used frequently to address employment gaps or weaknesses like a dip in grades one semester. Take advantage of these – don’t let the admissions committee try and guess why a negative happened. Tell them. Some optional essays allow you not just to explain weaknesses but to add something you’d like the admissions committee to know. Use it if you have something worthwhile to add, like an experience that helps you show fit. Again, refer to episode 137 for ideas on providing context for a dip in grades.
These are becoming more common on MBA applications and I feel they will become more common with other graduate applications as well. They exist to assess presence and poise (before issuing an interview invitation), as well as your ability to think on your feet. For business schools, videos also help schools to understand how you will present yourself to recruiters, who are increasingly using videos as a screening tool.
I’ve hit the high points of most applications. If there are other elements of the application that you want me to address, please ask in the comments at accepted.com/247.
I hope you now see that your grad school application is like a jigsaw puzzle where all pieces should interlock, and when assembled, present an impressive picture of you. Each element has a role to play, a piece to add to the puzzle that is you.
And Glenn, wherever you are, I hope I’ve answered your question.
• Fitting In & Standing Out: The Paradox at the Heart of Admissions, a free guide
• Round 3 vs Next Year: When should You Apply?, a recorded webinar
• 10 Tips for Writing Letters of Recommendation
• What if the President of the United States Wrote Your Letter of Recommendation?
• Create a Winning AMCAS Application , a recorded webinar